Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - An Amateur Comic Singing Match

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AN AMATEUR COMIC SINGING MATCH.

"AN Amateur Comic Singing Match" is a friendly vocal contest, open to all corners on payment of a small entrance fee, and for the champion a prize, and perhaps a certificate of merit, such a one as would be of substantial use to him in the event of his being urged by daring ambition to take to real business on the music hall stage. The notion was not only original, but possessed all the elements that bespeak the generous soul, and, at the same time, the perfectly undimmed vision in the direction of personal profit. It was a clever conception, yet one the growth of which in such a mind can scarcely be regarded as miraculous. A hundred times, at least, must the enterprising gentleman in question have gazed with pride and sweet content on the crowd of intellectual faces directed in ecstasy towards some great and inimitable artist, and have observed the rapture with which, on the instant, every twitching mouth leaped, as it were, to meet the chorus to that popular and classical composition, "The Bloke wot Deals in Tripe." He must have marked the facial contortions in which they, all unaware and involuntarily, followed the singer's performances - contortions that were the exact counterpart of those which were made by the "Bloke" himself, and in which indeed lay his chief talent and claim on public support. It must have been evident to the proprietor's observant eye that there were scores of young fellows, [-240-] his constant patrons, who possessed in all probability as fine a mental capacity as those stars of their adoration, Funny Finch and the Nobby Coster, and who yearned for an opportunity to show themselves worthy disciples of those great teachers.
    This was one view of the case; but there was at least one other. Your Funny Finches and your Nobby Costers, however transcendent they may be as vocalists are after all but men, and possess the weakness that prompts ordinary mortals to make the most of their opportunities. Genius is apt to exalt its value. It might tend to check the exorbitant expectations of the Funny Finch and the Nobby Costermongers regards salary, if they were made to understand that a movement was afoot, the prime motive of which was the cultivation and encouragement of "stars" in embryo. At least such a measure was calculated to put the reigning celebrities on their mettle. Indeed, there is no telling to what extent we are, through this last-mentioned consideration indebted for the almost inexhaustible number of brilliant and exquisitely humorous vocal compositions that arc nightly listened to with boundless applause at the dozen or so of music halls that at once elevate and adorn our Metropolis.
    To return, however, to the amateur comic singing match. The experiment had been tried before, and with such a result as left no room for doubt regarding its success on the present occasion. The number of aspirants was limited to ten. The prize was a silver cup, appropriately engraved with words descriptive of the noble cause in which it was won. There was to be a fair field and no favour. No names were to be announced. The competitors were to be simply led to the footlights, and there left to settle the matter with [-241-] the audience, from whose final judgment there was to be no appeal.
    It was an exciting scene. The hall was crowded from pit to gallery, for the nameless ones were far from friendless. Twas a sight to be witnessed by those sceptics who deny the existence of modern chivalry. There was the field on which the battle was to be fought, and though the combatants were not yet in sight (indeed the niggers were "on" just at the moment), it was well known where they were; the eagle glances of maidens were fixed intently on the envious screen that hid them, and an anxious pallor, such as the cheapest cigars sold at the establishment could not produce, overspread the visages of the youths and young men assembled.
    That they might perfectly understand the sort of thing that was expected of them, a "Star Comique," of such renown that he drives no fewer than three ponies in his carriage, led off with one of his latest and best approved melodies. The flashes of wit it contained were absolutely blinding. It was quite in the new and highly relished style of music hall song, which is so different from that wearisome adherence to simple fun and common sense that characterised the ditties sung at old Vauxhall and other stupid places. The song with which the "Star Comique" favoured the auditory was all about a hungry man, who, try what he might, could never lull his voracious appetite. The applause that greeted each succeeding verse was almost deafening - quite so, in fact, when the singer arrived at the last stanza; and who can wonder? It would have been disheartening indeed if such an adequate rendering of wit and humour had passed unappreciated. Clutching the fore part of his trousers with his hands, and planting his hat well on [-242-] the back of his head, the delineator of modern comic song chanted-
        "I've tried German sausage and sprats boiled in ale,
         Linseed-meal poultice and puppy dog's tail,
         Stewed gutta percha (which pained my old throttle),
         Sourkrout, ozokerit, and soap brown and mottle."
    And yet our French neighbours accuse us of being stolid and phlegmatic! Hark to the clapping of hands, and the shrill laughter, and the inexorable shouts of "Hongkoor!" " Hencore!" "Ankore!" that pursue the hungry man as, with a final and masterly clutch at the bagginess of his trousers, he looks over his shoulder, and bows himself off and by it judge whether we are or are not a people alive to mirth and drollery, when they are of a sort that tickles our peculiar sensibilities.
    It is doubtful whether that crowded audience would have let the Great Macvance off without another song had not the chairman, waving a sugar-crusher, invoked silence, and announced that the amateur contest was about to commence. The curtain was raised, and the ten were disclosed to view. They sat on chairs in a row. It was at once evident that the majority had each fixed on some music hall celebrity as his model. There were to be seen faithfully reproduced the closely-fitting unmentionables and patent boots that invariably distinguish Funny Finch, the curly-brimmed hat of Rum Little Bags, the corduroy "smalls," and velveteen jacket with pearl buttons, without which it would be utterly impossible for that immensely popular singer Lanky Wiffles effectually to render those delectable ballads that have earned for him so enviable a reputation.
    In order to promote perfect fairness, and to avoid any undue advantage that one competitor might gain over [-243-] the rest by studious and exclusive attention to any single song, the titles of ten well known and favourite music-hall compositions were placed in a bag, and the amateurs themselves dipped for them, taking their chance as to the song that should fall to their share. Amid breathless silence the conductor announced that "No. 1" would sing a song written and composed by the inimitable Cranky Howler, entitled "After Dark."
    At the time I was disposed to think that No. i could not be congratulated on his good luck at the lottery- bag. It might be all very well for Cranky Howler. A man occupying his splendid position need not be trammelled by the rotten ropes of stage decorum that still are endured at music-halls. He could with impunity recite his after dark " chaff with the gals, and give full vent to his unapproachable imitation of the drunken swell's Haymarket war-whoop. But, in the hands of an amateur, "After Dark" is a tame affair. Divested of its idiotic tags and trimmings that are made to eke out a wretched attempt at rhyme, all that remains is the admirable sentiment that, because the pastimes of street-lamp-smashing, and knocker-wrenching, and police-assaulting, and drunkenness, and bestiality generally may be indulged with greater impunity after dark than before, these were so many prime reasons why all choice spirits should choose the nocturnal season before any other. The applause that waited on the singer was at least equal to his merit; but, as it was generously accompanied by the derisive groans and hisses of the numerous friends of the yet untried nine, No. 1, as he retired, must have felt somewhat less confident than when he stepped forward of securing the "magnificent silver goblet" that was to be the victor's reward.
    No. 2 was more fortunate in the song that chance [-244-] allotted him. Satisfaction beamed in his eyes, and, even before the chairman had announced what was coming, the confident amateur had already tilted his hat over his right eye, and winked at the audience with his left, and laid his forefinger along the side of his nose - by all of which tokens the experienced crowd before him were made aware that something highly relishing might be expected. The most amazing part of the affair was that they appeared well satisfied. It was a repetition of No. i, with embellishments. It was all about a "swell" who, having got drunk on champagne, "fell in love" with a young lady who kept a pickled whelk stall, and who, after a flirtation most graphically and minutely described, jilted the "swell" and ran off with "a cove wot hawked hearthstone." This was the pith of the story; but the story was nothing-the dressing was the thing. It is not too much to say that every other line contained either an indecent allusion or some scrap of disgusting slang. It had not the least claim in the world to be called a song; its theme was merely a hook on which to hang tit-bits of the sort of carrion that Lord Campbell's Act was intended to put beyond the reach of those whose vitiated taste gave them a hankering for it. Nevertheless, it was uproariously received. I doubt if more general satisfaction was evinced (excepting, of course, among the friends of the yet untried eight) when the "Star Comique" himself nearly convulsed his auditory by singing of his hungry man who fed on linseed meal poultice and puppy dogs' tail.
    But I need not wade through the odious slough out of which the remainder of the amateur competitors fished each for his dainty dish to set before those who were to judge of his good taste and talent. I soon found reason to alter my opinion as to the indifferent [-245-] luck of No. 1. His song was simply brainless rubbish, without point or aim; but it was not so with the others. Every song sung was at once recognised as a well-known composition; indeed, it was but to be expected that on such an occasion such only would be selected. It is not too much to say that, excepting the first, of which the reader may form his own opinion, not one was free from indecent allusion, or gross impudence, or odious vulgarity. The gentleman who won the prize - and it was voted to him by general acclamation-had the good fortune to get hold of a song the chorus to which was, of course, irresistible. It was-
        "Squeedge me, Joe! squeedge me, Joe!
        It's orful jolly, and that you know.
        Squeedge me, Joe! squeedge me, Joe!
        And, if you love me, say so."
    I dare not print what came before the chorus, nor could I, if it were desirable, describe the delicate gestures with which the singer illustrated his neatest points. I will only say that, after a double final round of "Squeedge me, Joe!" the storm of applause that followed left it no longer in doubt who had earned the magnificent silver goblet.